A green revolution has taken root and is growing rapidly in American cities. Even in the urban jungles of inner cities, people are growing their food. Urban farmers—as they have come to be known—are multiplying and planting edible gardens in the most unlikely places.
There is no exact tally, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that thousands of community gardens dot American cityscapes. DeKalb neighborhoods are among that growing number, as its residents are taking an interest in eco-friendly suburban farming.
The DeKalb County Public Library is collaborating with the City of Decatur and the Oakhurst Community Garden Project on a yearlong, free series of programs they have dubbed the “Living Green Series.”
“The library thinks this programming series is a great idea—one that our patrons will enjoy and one that provides information they truly have an interest in,” said Gina Jenkins, the Decatur Library Coordinator who planned the series with the other partners.
This series of educational programs covers a wide range of topics that include strategies for making the home eco-friendly. The gardening programs kicked off in February with a workshop titled “Your First Edible Garden,” which focused on first-time gardeners and those interested in learning organic methods of vegetable gardening.
An upcoming workshop teaches participants about compost—decomposing remains of fruits and vegetables that are then used for fertilizer. Another class in the fall titled “From the Kitchen to the Medicine Cabinet” teaches participants about using food, herbs and spices for healthy living.
Stephanie Van Parys, executive director of the Oakhurst Garden, said classes at Oakhurst’s facility, which accommodate up to 15 students at a time, were too full. “There is growing interest in gardening,” said Van Parys, a trained horticulturist with a bachelor of science degree from the University of Georgia. “Our partnership with DeKalb Library and Decatur allows us to bring information to more people at no fee.”
Oakhurst Garden volunteer Mary Muse said she is happy to see a community gardening boom in DeKalb. The Stone Mountain resident is also a master gardener through the University of Georgia’s horticulture extension program. Muse does her personal gardening at home in three large garden boxes, three small boxes and several pots in which she grows a variety of herbs and vegetables such as sugar snap peas.
Both women have deep roots in edible gardening. Van Parys grew up in a military family stationed in Germany. “My German grandfather was an avid gardener,” she recalled. “In fact, everyone [in the German town where we lived] had a garden and grew their food.” And as her family moved from one military station to another, she recalled her mother always growing her own tomatoes.
Van Parys planted her first garden while in college. She grew eggplants, tomatoes, kale and other vegetables in a 4-by-8 gardening box.
Muse, reared in the small town of Henderson, Tenn., said “gardening was a way of life” where she grew up. The kids in her family would plant seeds after the adults plowed the fields. “It was amazing to see the tiny shoots come up from the seeds,” she recalled. Her family never bought vegetables from the store. They would eat fresh and preserved vegetables from their field.
To Muse, gardening is “a spiritual activity,” in terms of growing living things from the soil. Community gardens are also about caring for the environment.
Both women explained that growing one’s own vegetables and supporting local farmers markets reduce the area’s carbon footprint. Shipping lettuce from California to Decatur or tomatoes from Mexico to Lithonia contributes to the consumption of fossil fuels and pollution into the environment.
Furthermore, organic gardening eliminates unwanted chemicals running into the water supply. And as Van Parys noted, composting discarded fruits and vegetables means fewer plastic trash bags that will not decompose in our landfills.
Muse added that growing one’s own vegetables eliminates food safety concerns. “I’m skeptical that the Food and Drug Administration could properly inspect food around the world to make sure no banned chemicals are used,” she said.
So, how does a city dweller join the swelling ranks of urban farmers? Van Parys said it is best for those living in apartments to sign up for a community plot. Those who have a balcony could grow herbs and vegetables in a container, but it must get at least eight hours of direct sunlight.
Those who have a backyard should plant in a spot with ample direct sunlight, apply compost and keep the area weed free. She suggests starting small and growing a few different vegetables at first. There are plenty of good books, magazines and TV shows about gardening, she added. And of course, one could also participate in the Living Green Series.
To learn more about the yearlong program, visit Oakhurst Community Garden Project, http://oakhurstgarden.org/classes/living-green-series/, or call (404) 370-3070.